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Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.5: The Ruthless Trio

Afheesh (played by me) yanked his bloodied weapon from the throat of the Bronze Boy at his feet. The ruthless trio had just made quick work of a small group of Bronze Boy gang members. Consequently they had looted some 40 bronze thorns (bt’s), 4 dirks, and 4 saps. Pabst (played by Jenn) collected their bronze badges, their gang colors. Wufcor (played by Isis) suggested they all take the badges to the Troll Boys’ hangout, the Bloody Tankard, to see if they could score some free drinks.

It was not long after the three found themselves before a rundown saloon front. It was of pale cracked wood built onto the ground level of one of the old orange stone buildings. A hot yellow light poured through the entryway as did a pungent stream of smoke. Hanging from the placard hitch was a broken tankard, brown stained or rusted they could not tell which. There was a large group of Troll Boys out front guarding the door. A few appeared to have troll blood oozing in their veins but most were human. Pabst was the first to approach.

Pabst (tossing the Bronze Boy badges to the dirt): “How many drinks are these worth?”

The Ugliest Troll Boy (spits on the badges): “Maybe a half jack! We do our own fightin’, we don’t pay others to fight fer us!”

Pabst (undeterred): “Well then, do you Troll Boys have any GOOD fighters among you?”

Isis: “Sis…”

The Ugliest Troll Boy laughed at her and poked his head into the bar from over the saloon doors. Consequently he shouted a name none of the trio could make out, it could have been in trollish for all they knew. However, to their relief a human stepped to the door. He walked slowly out to the creaking plank porch with an air of supreme arrogance about him. He had a scale-mail vest and gleaming bronze bracers on his forearms. Circling Pabst for a few seconds and smirking said, “You’re too wounded to fight me tonight. Come back when you’ve healed and meet your death at the edge of my blade”. With that he turned heel and walked nonchalantly back inside.

Jenn (checking her character sheet): “Crap! I am still wounded, BAD!”

The trio parted ways shortly thereafter. Pabst and Wufcor headed off to find a White Star Guild house of healing and then back to the Yellow Lotus Inn to rest. Afheesh headed to the livery for food and some simple companionship for the night.

Several hours and 1,500 bt’s later at dawn Afheesh arrived refreshed and impatient in front of the Bloody Tankard. The place was shuttered until noon. The other two arrived sometime after with Pabst appearing fully healed. When they had seen the place was shut tight for another few hours they decided to go to the nearest armorer. There Pabst purchased a high quality bronze medium shield for 1,400 bt’s.

On the way back to the Bloody Tankard the ruthless trio was assailed from an alley by three giant earwigs. They made quick work of the monsters with Afheesh slaughtering two of them and Wufcor and Pabst slaying the last.

It was not long after the three were again in front of the Troll Boys’ clubhouse. The fighter that Pabst had challenged the previous evening was sitting leisurely on a chair leaned against the doorframe, his booted feet up on a stool. At his side was a rapier-like weapon with a razor-sharp polished blade, a full brass knuckle-guard, and a pommel spike. He was a professional swordsman, a Quick Blade.

The Quick Blade (taking his pipe from his lips): “So, what is it that we are dueling for?”

The trio proposed that the prize be a shot from the green bottle at the Green Bottle Tavern. The Quick Blade agreed and then terms of the fighter were worked out, drawing first blood would make the winner. That last stipulation was Pabst’s idea by the way.

As the gathering crowd of Troll Boys and curious passerby marked out the ring, Afheesh slipped into the Bloody Tankard unseen. He found two locked doors of interest in the empty bar when he heard the crowd lament then the Quick Blade and the Troll Boys laughing in victory. He darted back outside.

The Quick Blade had drawn first blood on the very first strike of the fight.

Jenn: “Awww! But I’m a GREAT duelist!”

Cris (the GM): “Well, his back is turned to you and the Troll Boys are congratulating him.”

Jenn: “Umm…”

Isis: “Sis! We might be over our heads here!”

Cris: “So, do you do it or not?”

Jenn: *sigh* “No, I put my sword away.”

Later, that evening the trio, the Quick Blade and five Troll Boys sat at the bar in the Green Bottle. Afheesh had already put down the money for the shot from the titular green bottle. The Quick Blade held up the small glass with green swirling liquor in it.

The Quick Blade: “Whosoever would duel over this shot may have it as their prize!”

Hence, a Troll Boy stepped forward. Afheesh sighed in disgust and stepped forward drawing his paired weapons.

Afheesh (looking back at his companions and shrugging): “I paid for it, it’s mine.”

Suddenly, the troll-blood lunged and struck with his dirk missing the agile ratling. As a result Afheesh jabbed with both blades striking deep, wounding the troll-blood badly. In desperation, the Troll Boy slashed narrowly missing his target (by 1 pt.). So Afheesh retorted killing the Troll Boy instantly.

The Quick Blade (sliding the shot glass over to the ratling): “I guess this is yours.”

Without thinking, the ratling slung it down and when it hit the bottom, he began to feel dizzy. However, he did fight off the dizziness and as a slight drowsiness faded, he felt strangely invigorated. Meanwhile, the Troll Boys grumbled as the swordsman led them out of the tavern. Finally, Wufcor approached Afheesh and gave him a small sack of coins.

Wufcor: “I made a little side bet. Here’s your share.”

The purse contained 150 bt’s so feeling very refreshed by the strange green booze, Afheesh decided to take his leave and go back to his favorite place, the livery. A jaunt in his step he whistled as left the place.

To Be Continued…

 

Tabletop Meditations #21: Heraldry

Brilliant war banners, strikingly colored flags waving in the wind, and fascinatingly designed symbols on theheraldry from the blog surcoats of warriors, which sometimes strangely define the character of the individual. Heraldry is more than just a splash of color or the addition of intriguing art; it can serve a deeper purpose within a roleplaying game.

Heraldic devices and symbols can be a short hand for the nature and/or attitudes of groups and organizations, which can help with NPC characterization if an individual does not fit this mold or vice versa. Player Characters may strive to either earn or adopt imagery under which they can gain prestige and earn an easily recognized reputation. I use the basics of heraldry in my games to add some color. In addition, I take care to add in certain conventions and symbols native to the game world or region for which I am creating.

 

There is no doubt whatever that symbolism forms an integral part of armory; in fact there is no doubt that armory itself as a whole is nothing more or less than a kind of symbolism. [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. p.5]

 

I use Heraldry in my games because it seems to stick in the players’ heads without much effort on their part. It also provides some preliminary characterization on occasion and can communicate the symbols important to the culture of those using it adding to the world building. When Game-Mastering I use coats of arms to mark out organizations, locations such as towns and cities (seals), and individuals of note. I also use simplified versions on wax and clay seals and on signet rings, not just the colorful incarnations found on flags, shields, and surcoats.

On maps and handouts, seals and flags can help to divide a map into political regions and distinguish the factions with an easily identified visual symbol that is easily digestible and easily confirmed.

Language of Color and Symbols

In the most basic of terms heraldry is the use of color, symbols, and decoration as distinguishment of identity. It is also an art and with that it carries with it tis own language which may be different for different cultures as in Armory (concerning the art and study of armorial bearings including its legalistic side). This symbolic art language is heraldry and the primary result is the coat of arms.

 

When heraldry came into existence it came in as an adjunct of decoration, and it necessarily followed that the whole of the positions which the craftsmen found the eagle or the lion depicted were appropriated with the animals for heraldry. That this appropriation for the exclusive purpose of armory has been silently acquiesced in by the decorative artists of later days is simply proof of the intense power and authority which accrued later to armory, and which was in fact attached to anything relating to privilege and prerogative. [Fox-Davies. Pgs.3-4]

 

Arms are emblazoned on Banners, Standards, Flags, Shields (shield emblems date at least from late roman times), Surcoats, Tabards, Pennants/Pennons, Sashimono, Nobori, Uma-jirushi, Hata-jirushi. The idea of heraldry may have evolved from the preferred designs or decoration conflated with certain individuals or militaries becoming their recognized insignia.

Quick & Dirty Heraldry Primer

There are some terms that used in this discussion, which are Shield, Field, and the names of the Partitions, Charge, Helm, and Motto.

Shield – The central shape bearing the coat, which is the shape of a shield typically an escutcheon but can be round or oval especially in those cultures whose warriors’ shields are of a particular shape. It seems likely this evolved from the painting of shields or identifying marks and decorations put on the front of shields. The shield “constituted the warrior’s ‘weapon’ par excellence, the symbol of his status and function. It was handed to him when he was admitted to the ranks of warriors for the first time; to abandon it henceforth was a disgrace. If he died in combat, the warrior was carried away on his shield. During assemblies, decisions were approved by warriors striking  […] their shields.” [Contamine, Phillippe. 1984. War in the Middle Ages. Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited (English Translation).Oxford, England. p.178]

Field – The Field is the background element of the arms that is usually a solid color but can be partitioned.

Partitions – The field partitioned in half, into quarters and diagonally (per bend). The line of the partition is usually not visible but designated by the difference in color between them. An example is where the right (Dexter) partition as a yellow field and the left (Sinister) as crimson.

Charge – Typically, a central emblem set at the center of the shield on the field, which can be an abstract symbol or the portrayal of an animal, human, monster, plant, fruit, flower, etc.

Helm – The position of helm is at the top center of the shield and is typically a helm with stylized and complex plumes draping from it. Like the shield, the helm is shaped and representative of its culture although instead of a helmet it can be the head of animal or beast as well as such objects as flowers or skulls.

Motto – This takes the form of a ribbon, banner, or plaque at the bottom of the shield or beneath it. This object bears a saying taken to be a core value to those the coat of arms represents i.e. a family motto.

Coat of Arms – A coat of arms is the central heraldry on the shield including the field(s) and central charge. This collection of heraldic symbols is also easy to transfer to other display formats such as banners, flags, or surcoats. The most simplistic form of a heraldic coat of arms is a charge on a field although there are examples in history of a simple single color field only.

The purpose of this system of design and bearings is essentially for identification usually associated with important individuals and families.

I.D.

Heraldry is a form of visual identification and encoded certain information so that observers could identify those bearing it and read certain specific meanings in its symbols. The most common of these would be Unit Identifiers, Origin, and Loyalties.

Unit Identifiers are heraldic marks that identify a military unit and its divisions. These can correlate to signal flags calling for and relaying simple orders to a specific unit on the field or to certain signifiers such as honoraria or special awards.

 

The tradition of each century in a legion having its own standard (signum) appears to have continued throughout the Principate. […]Signa appear to have been topped either by an ornamental spearhead or an upraised hand. Theiur shafts were heavily decorated with cross-pieces, wreaths, and from two to six large discs. The actual significance of any of these items is unknown, though it does seem probable that together they provided a system for identifying the particular century. [Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2003. The Complete Roman Army. Thames & Hudson Inc. New York, NY. p.134]

 

The central charge or another secondary charge or even specific color of field can denote from where the bearers have come. It can denote a specific region of an area all the way down to a household within that specific region using additional symbols or certain well-known components. This type of sign can also be unintentional such as when a certain color of dye is limited to a specific region so those nearest that area will make use of the color thus all those using that color are within the limits of a certain, although probably wider, area. This last idea may also give away an imposter to those with the proper knowledge and a keen eye for detail.

 

At the time of the third crusade (1188- 90), ‘it was agreed that all those coming from the lands of the king of France should wear red crosses, those from the lands of the king of England white, and those from the county of Flanders green crosses.’ […] In their turn the Burgundians chose an emblem – the cross of St. Andrew, either in saltire (en sautoir) or forked (fourchue), in white or red. [Contamine. p.190]

 

Heraldry can also exhibit loyalty to a specific individual, their administration, and/or their family by way of pictures or symbols. “When Pontius Pilate first visited Jerusalem […], an uproar was created because his escort had brought its standards, including the imagines [a series of images of the emperor and his close family which were mounted on poles and kept with the standards], with them, thus bringing graven images into the Temple and offending Jewish law.” [Goldsworthy. p.143]

On the Battlefield

Heraldry is of practical use on the battlefield in that certain types of flags and their symbols including color can carry meaning for desperate soldiers. They can also serve as signals sending complex messages long distances cutting through the noise and chaos with brightness. “[C]ommanders would have individual flags hoisted high that gave the troops something to follow across the battlefield, while signal flags gave instructions such as advance, retreat or adopt defensive positions.” [Haskew, Michael. 2008. Fighting Techniques of the Oriental World AD 1200 – 1860. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY. p.32]

As a Rallying Point, the standard of a king or commander can serve as markers on the battlefield for their location. Back at camp flags, banners, and standards serve to mark a location for troops to rally around or a place to regroup. It can also help lead soldiers to battle especially when all else is eclipsed by the fog and clatter of war, they have the flag to follow into the fray.

 

Banner systems provided the most ready mechanism for giving some form of battlefield coherence. In the Japanese forces, not only did samurai carry the Nobori flag attached to the back of their armour – giving the attendant ashigaru some prominent form of bearing – but the ashigaru themselves would often transport various insignia around the battlefield. Some would carry the hata-jirushi (flag streamer), the base of the flagpole sitting in a holder fixed to the waistband. This flag would denote the nearby presence of a particular samurai. Some soldiers were esteemed enough to carry the uma-jirushi flag attached to the back of their armour, thus indicating that a general or daimyo was present. While these positions obviously carried a certain honour, they could dramatically shorten the life of the flag carrier – enemy soldiers were attracted to such insignia as they were obvious targets. [Haskew. p.32]

 

Signal flags can signal certain units to carry out their part of a battle plan on the field of war. They can convey simple messages such as move to the front, retreat, fire, or charge as well as slightly more complex signals such as break off and carry out a specific maneuver. This is discounting any kind of semaphore that is. Heraldic marks and partitions can be added to increase the limited vocabulary of signal flags and remain distinguishable from each other.

 

Traditionally a distinctive vexillum or flag, usually in red, marked out the commander’s position in camp before a battle and on the battlefield. Vexilla also provided the main standard for detachments of troops serving away from their parent unit, so that in time such detachments became known as vexillations (vexillationes). [Goldsworthy. p.134]

 

As a war trophy an opponent’s heraldry is unmatched, in effect the victor has stolen their identity. The seized coat of arms serves as a symbol of victory and the enemy’s defeat and remains on display as their shame. Pennants and flags displayed like trophies hung upside down, inverted, or in a certain location such as on a post are common as is the burning of captured flags, which is more an act of annihilation.

When displayed in the camp or at home base in any of the previously discussed manners this can serve to diminish the enemy to and improve morale among the troops. Displays of such trophies can also serve to increase the prestige of the one who possesses it especially if the defeated carried a reputation. When a captured flag marched in front of a unit on the field serves much the same purposes and could serve to direct the enemy’s ire at that unit as well.

 

Naturally the sequel to a battle entailed various religious ceremonies: the obsequies and burial of the dead according to the means dictated by circumstances or by the social status of the victims; masses for favours shown and the Te Deum celebrated by the victor, who might also offer trophies from the victory – flags, spurs, pieces of armour – to a sanctuary, found a rich abbey or a modest oratory. [Contamine. p.300]

In Game

Heraldry and its devices can be used to great advantage within a fantasy campaign. Coats of arms are cheap characterization tool (a la cliché representations of character), serve as mnemonic devices for places, people, and organizations, as well as all the previously mentioned conventional uses.

As symbolic short hand, heraldry can communicate heaps of random game info to Players and their characters. As a cheap characterization tool is relates to the old cliché of skulls and black for bad, and white and feathered wings for good or vice versa using the wolf’s in sheep’s clothing cliché. The more complex and showy a character’s coat of arms then the more powerful they are or the more of a blow-hard, perhaps both. However, heraldry can use its own language of symbols and colors to imply certain characteristics such as lineages with arcane power, necromancy, bad histories, disagreeable personalities or historically very agreeable ones unique to your game world. Heraldic symbols carry reputations with them as well as symbolizing power, heritage, or other such things within the culture and from history from which it takes its images and symbols.

Images are easier to remember especially brightly colored designs than just names even of individuals. Therefore, heraldic devices help to memorize reputations, lineages, organizations and the ranks in that organization. This is especially true in a region or world with limited literacy. In such societies, a family crest is indispensable in proving who you are by proving your relations. Heralds may keep rolls of diagramed records of coats tracking the evolution of the heraldry from person to person thus creating a sort of genealogical history of symbols.

Complimentary World Building Device

Heraldry can help a GM to build their world and link its internal elements together through association. As previously mentioned it also carries additional, honestly sometimes extraneous, information to the PCs.

Symbolic representations of a culture or group used in related individuals’ arms deepen the game world by displaying their relationship and even occasionally the nature and mood of that relationship.

 

[A]n additional type [of flag] had been adopted by some [Roman] cavalry units for use in parades and perhaps at other times. This was the dragon or draco, a bronze animal head with an open mouth and neck to which was attached a multi-colored tube or material. When the standard bearer moved quickly, the tube or material acted like a wind-sock, streaming behind the head and making a whistling sound.  These standards seem to have been copied from some of Rome’s opponents on the Danubian frontier, most notably the nomadic Sarmatians, and are depicted on Trajan’s Column flying over the enemy armies. [Goldsworthy. p.134]

 

Heraldry adds in bright colors and may even allude to a deeper connection with those it represents such as the previously mentioned origin of the bearer through intention or the use of rare dyes/pigments or unusual symbols. It can act as set dressing especially useful in emphasizing the scenery of such events as tournaments, duels, negotiations, encampments etc. the bonus being this set dressing hints to the greater world outside to those who can read their symbology.

 

The core of the Manchu military system at the time of the conquest consisted of the pa-ch’i, or ‘Eight Banners’. When the system was set up in 1601, there were four Banners – the Yellow, White, Red and Blue –distinguished by flags of the respective colours. In 1616 four more Manchu Banners were created, using flags of the same four colours but with contrasting borders. In addition, an army carried a black silk flag, which was used as a rallying point and seems to have been regarded as sacred [.] Each Banner was divided into five jalans, or regiments, each of five nirus, or ‘arrows’. A niru had a nominal strength of 300 men. [Peers, CJ. 2006. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1840. Osprey Publishing, Midland House. Oxford, UK. pgs.230-231]

 

The development of symbols unique to your group incorporated into the heraldic language is a definite option that you should use. This creates unique heraldic devices that carry special meanings found only on that world. In addition, you can encode PC actions in coats of arms either as a record of lineage or permanent symbols of that PC’s legendary victories commemorated within their family crest.

 

The standard and pennon of Joan of Arc were not the only flags embroidered with pious images or texts; such flags can be found in almost every army of the day, Burgundian, English, Lotharingian, etc. Certain standards even had a sacred character, like the banner of St James at Compostella, that of St Lambert at Liege and the Oriflamme of St Denis. […] It is remarkable that, prolonging a usage which doubtless arose during the first crusade, crosses made out of material of different colours and shapes served from the fourteenth century as the distinctive emblems for English, French, Breton, Burgundian and Lotharingian combatants. Just as some sacred decoration was in part military, so military decoration was in part religious. [Contamine. p.298]

Conclusion

When used in a game heraldic devices and symbology can convey vast amounts of information to players at a glance and deepen the psychology of the fictional world.  This is true whether that information is genealogy, reputation, origin, history, military rank, unit demarcation, or as a cliché characterization tactic. This is especially true when the GM and Players have created their own index of symbols and put thought into why someone would use these symbols as an emblem or collection thereof that serves to identify them personally and sometimes spiritually.

Using heraldry of any sort in your game adds a language of color and symbols allowing for greater communication with players through the game itself and adds a touch of realism as well as some arresting visual flair.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.2: The Green Well

Afheesh the ratling quickling (played by me), Pabst the human duelist (played by Jenn), and Wufcor the ratling Brotherhood of the Green Wellcanny-jack (played by Isis) had been escorted by a contingent of city guard to an office near the White Rose Perfumery. The office was small, crowded with stacks of yellowed parchment sheets. Also scattered everywhere were small wooden ink stamps bearing various official seals from past regimes.

Meanwhile sitting at the desk, which the crew found themselves facing, was a large Westlander in full plate armor. The seal of the city guard, the ring of thorns, emblazoned on his breast. Within it was a black oak leaf under a yellow crescent moon. His plumed helm with spiked facemask sat on the well-worn desktop and his heavy bearded axe leaned against the wall behind him.

The guard that had pushed them into the office had introduced the man at the desk as Captain Fenom. The street crew had to wait while he packed his long stem bone pipe with a fresh load and lit it.

Captain Fenom (exhaling a massive fog of pungent peppery smoke): “Those gangs have been a hassle of late, the uh, Bronze Boys and um, Troll Boys …”

He took another long drag.

Captian Fenom (again exhaling): “I like that; you’re good fighters, real good. Here.”

He reached under the desk and then tossed a leather sack filled with 8,000 bronze thorns onto it. The thud of the bag and the jingle of the coins were music to the trio’s ears.

Captain Fenom: “Take it, it’s yours. You work for me now. There’s another 8,000 thorns for you three if you bring me the head of Feenox, an apprentice of the Green Well. “

He put his feet up on the desk and dismissed the scrappy trio who made themselves gone very quickly. Pabst had snatched up the coin sack.

The trio beat it to a burned out building. The place had been a cult temple but the city lord has been hunting down and chasing out the smaller cults that have sprung up around the city. The rumor was the last holdout of this temple, a black guard, had met her fate within the charcoaled not too long ago. It was boarded up. However, Afheesh parkoured up through a window in the second story and kicked out the boards over the door on the ground letting his partners in crime in.

Wufcor dove into a pile of trash to sleep. Pabst pulled out her sleeping roll in a corner free of debris and Afheesh found a large crack in the wall and a small crevice beyond that. That was where he decided to sleep. It was where he felt most to secure to be able to sleep. However, before he drifted off he made sure to count his share of the gang bounty, 2,666 bronze pieces. Pabst had taken up the left over coin.

The robust yet still small thorn-runner lay curled up and perfectly hidden for most of the night and for most of the night he had slept rather peacefully until suddenly awakened. He heard someone arguing. He poked his head out very carefully and saw that a pair of Mantck ratlings (medium sized ratlings) and a pair of humans one carrying a sack were harassing Pabst. She had her weapon out.

Slowly the quickling crept out of his hiding place and quietly drew his weapons. As he neared striking distance, the sack bearer screamed in pain. Wufcor had stabbed him in the back.

The first Mantck struck at Pabstcan, she parried his dirk. The second rushed Wufcor wounding him badly. Afheesh charged and struck out with both of his weapons at the second Mantck whom managed to dodge the first blow but caught the second full on. It nearly killed him. The human that had been carrying the sack dropped it and taking a defensive position drew his shabby scimitar. Pabst swung wildly with her scimitar at the first Mantck but her clumsy strike did not get anywhere near him. The second human, apparently the leader due to his wearing a scale mail vest, attacked Pabst with his scimitar. She parried then immediately countered but the leaders’ sword stopped it dead. The ring of steel echoed from the blackened walls.

The second human shrieked and dropped to the dirt dead. Wufcor’s dirk had been unerring. The first Mantck lashed out at Pabst narrowly missing. Afheesh slaughtered the second Mantck with his paired swords. Pabst hacked into the leader’s side, blood gushed. He retorted wounding Pabst badly, his scimitar easily piercing her brigandine.

Wufcor moved around the fight flanking the leader and striking injuring him further. The last Mantck struck at Pabst, she barely deflected his blade. Afheesh struck at the Mantck with his first weapon and then at the leader with his second. The first landed horribly wounding the medium-sized ratling. The leader easily deflected the second. Pabst in turn chopped him down.

Wufcor jabbed his blade into the Mantck. Horribly wounded and soaked in his own blood but he was still standing. Afheesh got in close and all but eviscerated him with a double sword strike. The fight was over.

The trio immediately dumped out the sack. Out tumbled two bottles of wine, an ivory box with mother of pearl inlay, 3 silver candelabras, a poor quality carved aquamarine jar, 20 high quality arrows, a highest quality set of wrenches, and a poor quality hand mirror. Inside of the ivory box were 3 gold rings, 1 silver ring with ruby, and 5 copper rings. Their foes had been burglars. Come morning the trio decided to find a fence for the goods.

The next day under the leadership of Wufcor the crew was able to sell off all of their ill-gotten loot with Afheesh receiving a 2,311 bt (bronze thorn) cut for a total of 4,977. He left Pabst to her shopping for a great sword and Wufcor’s quest to find a leatherworker to craft a coin purse from what he cut from the Troll Boy leader. The quickling had decided to take up residence, for the night anyway, in one of the brothels operated by the Livery of Pleasures. There he would get a skilled companion for the night, a hot meal, and a lot of good wine.

The following day, and 1,500 bts poorer, Afheesh caught back up with his other two companions at the Drunken Lotus Tavern. The trio sat for a round, courtesy of Pabst, while they decided if they should pursue the head of one Feenox apprentice of the Green Well. A difficult decision especially since the Green Well was the province of the most powerful guild in the city, the Brotherhood of the Green Well. They could not resist the pay however. It was not long after that they asked around. Shortly after that they headed off to another tavern, the Green Bottle where their quarry was said to spend his lunchtime.

The trio wandered past an old tree, and from the overcrowded, and noisy plaza into the Green Bottle. It was spelled “Bottel” on the signage but all three were illiterate. The rear half of the place was elevated reached by a wide wooden stair. The bar was at the front to the immediate right of the saloon doors. The heavy counter stretched from wall to wall. Behind it at the far end were the doors to the kitchen.

Not an apparent fighter, the bartender was a broad-shouldered human, a wet leather apron over his front. Behind him were shelves lined with bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with various liquors and juices as well as a giant hogshead of ale coming halfway out of the wall. However, in a place of reverence among the shelves was a large green carved glass bottle that contained a glowing green liquid. At the bar were a very drunk barfly druid slurping ale from his leather jack and two young men, humans, in green hooded robes, a pair of apprentices of the green well.

Pabst: “Well, this seems to be the right place.”

Wufcor: “Heh, heh, yeah. Which one do I stab first?”

To Be Continued…

 

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Here is another Hubpages article from me, Robert A. Neri Jr.A chaotic session of actual play

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

This article explicitly goes through my process for when I write my actual play blog entries. The blog entry that the article refers to for examples is The Dragonslayers Pt. II: The Day the Music Died. The entry is an early one and so the writing quality is a little off but it illustrates my points of construction without them being too obvious. It also shows that the process described in my article is my process and that I have been using it and developed it over time. I consciously think about certain points when I transcribe from my notes.

Sometimes stories and incidents generated during a tabletop RPG session are worth putting out into the world for others to enjoy but how do you transform your session notes into an enjoyable read?

You can read it here: How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Other Hubpages articles by Robert A. Neri Jr.:

Building Tabletop Myths

Game Mastery: Establishing Atmosphere

Game Mastery: War as Set Piece

Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

The Dark Lord: Building Better Lords of Evil

The regular weekly actual play blog, The Rats of Tanglethorn, will continue next week.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.1: Street Mercs

The two small groups of gang members were facing off in the middle of the wide paved boulevard just outside of the Caskroom Tavern (#15 on the Map). It was a chill evening and the cobblestones pale and moist with fresh filth. Rag pickers, the occasional wagon, and the odds and ends of Tanglewood society were still trafficking the street in unhealthy droves that parted their unstoppable course to make room for the hooligans.

The whole scene partially lit by a few candle lanterns outside of the rough establishment was bathed in warm yellow half-light. On one side were the Bronze Boys, a gang of 20 humans each with a torque of bronzed thorn vine. Opposing them were the Troll Boys, a gang of 10 humans with a white troll facemask baring its fangs painted on their worn tunics. Their leader was big and appeared to have troll blood in his veins.

Without warning, the street thugs fell upon each other using their fists, feet, and daggers. Meanwhile from the shadows the two ratling, Afheesh (played by me) and Wufcor (played by Isis), and the human duelist, Pabstcan (played by Jenn), watched the fight. It was Afheesh’s plan to wait a little bit and then approach the leader of the losing side offering to assist for a price but both sides seemed evenly matched. Four Bronze Boys had fallen and only a single Troll Boy lay in the dirty street.
Impatient, Pabst stepped from the shelter of the shadows and shouted a challenge to the trollish leader of the Troll Boys.

Pabst (played by Jenn)(brandishing her scimitar): “Come and meet your doom by my blade!”

He ignored her as he smashed in an opponent’s face with the pommel of his short sword. Afheesh took it upon himself to dash into the fray approaching the Troll Boy leader. The big brute accepted the ratlings offer but would pay after the fight was won. Afheesh dashed back to the befuddled and slightly miffed Pabst and the agitated Wufcor. As soon as he delivered the message, the other two lunged into the fight against the Bronze Boys.

Jenn started to giggle.

Cris (the GM)(with furrowed brow): “Why you laughing!?”

Jenn: “Because I picture them as a bunch of blonde and tanned surfer boys without shirts.”

Isis roared with laughter.

By the time the thuggish trio joined the fight there were 11 Bronze Boys and 6 Troll Boys still standing. Afheesh charged the Bronze Boy leader slashing savagely at him with a paired weapon blow. He tried to parry with his dirk but fumbled badly stepping into the blows. The gang leader dropped dead into a puddle of his own blood. Wufcor moved around behind a gangster occupied with staving off an attack from a larger Troll Boy and stabbed him in the back horribly wounding him. Pabstcan hacked at a “random @$$#ole” but was easily parried.

The skirmish continued for about another 15 seconds until all of the Bronze Boys were dead and only two Troll Boys and their Leader stood in the middle of the carnage. The adventurer trio all gave the last gangsters toothy grins expecting a monetary reward. The three gang-members turned and began to walk away.

Troll Boy Leader (casually waving his left hand in a gesture of dismissal): “Get your pay from the corpses.”

The trio exchanged glances and charged while the three gang-members had their backs turned. The leader suddenly spun around and nailed Pabst in the chest with his sword. Afheesh struck one of the other two who dodged one blade but hit by the other wounding him badly. Wufcor tried to stab the same target but missed. He retorted with his dagger but missed. The third Troll Boy also struck at Wufcor with his dagger but missed by a mile.

Afheesh struck at the untouched Troll Boy dropping him with a nasty double blade strike. The leader swung again at Pabst but missed. The other thug fumbled and dropped his dagger while trying to slash at Afheesh. The ratling Quickling sank his twin blades to the hilt into the second to last gangster standing.

Pabst yelled out that she “declares a duel” against the last Troll Boy. The gang leader parried Pabst’s scimitar. Afheesh readied his blades should Pabst’s self-declared duel go badly. Unheeding of Pabst Wufcor flanked the Troll Boy leader and sank his dirk into the man’s side nearly killing him in a single blow.

Afheesh hung back from the fight and Wufcor sank back into the shadows. Pabst engaged her foe one-to-one once again dropping him with a critical chop through the ribs. The butchered corpse flopped onto the cobblestone street. The ruthless group immediately fell upon the corpses and collected the loot. They gathered up 17 dirks, 90 bronze thorns, 10 suits of soft leather armor, 17 pair of bronze bracers, 8 saps, 4 short swords, and 7 pair of greaves.

That was when the trio was aware that they were receiving applause. A group of mercenaries in black was clapping. They had greatly enjoyed the show and invite d the three to drinks in the tavern. Embroidered on their chests was a red rose pierced diagonally by a curved sword with a drop of blood coming from its blade tip. The trio of sweaty and blood spattered adventurers gladly accepted. Especially after some guardsmen who had also been watching prevented Wufcor from violating the Troll Boy leader’s corpse.

The group had just barely begun to wallow in their victory and had only waded through the first round of frothy ale before a group of guards burst through the saloon doors. One of the guards pointed right at the trio and shouted, “Arrest them!” The mercenaries around the adventurers, members of the Bleeding Rose, melted away to other tables.

Jenn (looking at Cris): “Aw man! Already!?”

To Be Continued…

 

Rats of Tanglethorn: Intro

Since Game-Master Cris’ game turned out to be so lethal Isis, Jenn, and I had to generate new Where the ratling dwells.characters. I decided on a ratling male. We were still playing in an “evil” campaign in the Poisonwood city of Tanglethorn. I dubbed my new character the ratling Fourthborn Afheeshh the Nervous.

He is a thorn runner ratling native to the Thorn Ring, a dense wall of thorn-vines that bounds the city. His hair is light brown, matching the thorns, has light blue eyes and what skin is exposed is fair. He is a chaotic evil scrupulous character with Quickling as his class. His weapons are custom versions of Psi’s. They have a thin but sharp blade allowing for a slashing weapon that can stab and hook. Afheeshh’s disposition is hotheaded, quick tempered, emotional but basically nice. His flaws are Shy and Jumpy.

Isis decided on a ratling male Canny-Jack named Wufcor and Jenn a human female Duelist named Pabstcan (exasperated sigh). Both were natives of the wretched city of thorns. The city of Tanglethorn has been under the thumb of one Lord Ebikom for the last two and half years. Rumors that the city lieutenants are planning a coup were circulating. There was tension in the air and the filthy streets were a network of raw nerves, no one wanted yet another violent political upheaval. The two ratlings and the duelist were sitting at a badly stained and damp table in a crowded smoke filled saloon called the Caskroom.

The dregs of the city packed the place along with small groups of the two local beggar-gangs, the Twisted Horns and the Broken Dirks. In addition to them, there were two other local street gangs, the Bronze Boys and the Troll Boys, facing off over an undeclared drinking contest. Wufcor was picking at the table with his dirk in anticipation of a brawl. Pabst was “hanging tough” by the table downing her jack of frothy ale, it had cost her the last coin in her purse. Afeesh (how those round the table pronounced it and it is easier to spell) was watching the two cliques as they grew increasingly hostile to each other.

It took about an hour before both parties stood and walked outside to “handle it”.

Afeesh (played by me): “That’s our queue.”

Wufcor (played by Isis): “Yeah! I wanna stab someone!”

Pabst (played by Jenn): “I’m gonna duel the big guy!”

The three pulled their weapons as they passed between the still swinging saloon-doors following the angry gang members outside into the street.

To Be Continued…

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.

The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.

Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.

However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.

On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.

There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.

The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.

Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.

Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.

This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.

Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.

A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.

Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.

The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.

A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.

Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.

An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.

Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.

The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters.  These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.

Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.

 

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their Potions and Medicines to combat diseaseadventure the expedition begins to fall sick with fever. At first, just a few torchbearers were sick and then a few porters. Eventually almost the entire adventuring party is sick even a few PCs are ill. The danger made apparent before the expedition. However, they assumed it couldn’t be that bad. After all, they had healing magic at their disposal. Now stranded at the center of a monster-infested morass they are bogged down with a sick and dying expedition. In addition, the longer they stay, the more likely more will fall ill. An invisible tiny enemy has brought them to their knees.

Disease has stalled even killed some of the toughest, persistent, and well-provisioned adventurers in history. Strange fevers, boils, sores, pox, food poisoning, parasitic worms, STD’s, and animal born infections have plagued adventurers and military campaigns throughout history. With disease being such an important factor concerning exploration and conquest, a clever Game-Master (GM) would be foolish not to make use of that side of nature.

Disease is an underutilized tool in the GM Toolshed and can add to the danger and feeling of a setting. Disease is a world-class force. It can thwart adventurers, jamb the wheels of imperialism, stop the machines of war dead, and even curtail history. However, with all things in the game world, diseases need to be broken down into a few basic ideas.

There are three aspects to diseases in respect to roleplaying games that are important. These are Contagion Rate, the Incubation Period, and the Disease Vector(s) through which the sickness perpetuates. The Contagion Rate refers to how contagious the disease is, percentiles can easily represent this. This represents how easily the disease can transfer to an individual. The percentile rate would mean that the exposed character is potentially infected. After this determination, the GM should refer to the game mechanics for what happens next. If the character succumbs to the infection then the symptoms of the disease are often not immediately noticeable.

Symptoms and the main effects of the disease will appear after the Incubation Period of the specific disease has passed. Incubation Period refers to how long the disease remains dormant in an infected host; it can still be contagious at this stage. After exposure a character can walk around apparently unaffected for however long the Incubation Period lasts which can ranged anywhere from a few hours to days even years! They can remain infectious during this period as well. Often the more infectious a disease is the shorter the incubation time. A highly infectious disease that has a short incubation time is a plague in the waiting although the quicker the incubation then the quicker the outbreak is likely to burn itself out.

Finally, the third idea is the Disease Vector. A vector is the agent that carries the disease to its living host, which can be a living organism or a medium like dust. The infection vectors that can spread a disease are many but the main ones to keep in mind are those that travel through wounds, insect bites, animals (feces & diseased individuals, corpses), and those that are airborne or hide in improperly prepared or stored food. Adventurers need to make sure their food has not spoiled or been contaminated. They should beware of corpses they have not killed themselves. Adventurers also need to care for their wounds even small scratches especially when traversing bodies of water or marsh areas. Of course, they also need to learn how to deal with biting insects especially mosquitoes and flies.

Infection can get into open wounds through direct contact with such vectors as dirty clothes, water, mud, and general filth. The improper cleaning of deep wounds is begging for infection. A good example of the result of an infection through wound contamination with serious consequences is gangrene. Gangrene results in fever and possibly the loss of limbs and death not to mention the stench of rotting flesh. Note that gangrene also results from a lack of circulation but the form we are concerned with is the result of bacterial infection.

Animal and insect bites are another major vector for diseases. The most obvious one is rabies, if the animal is foaming at the mouth its bite is something to avoid. However, certain animals that are carriers are not so easy to avoid. Vampire bats prey upon sleeping warm-blooded victims. Another infamous example is of the Tsetse fly and its transmission of sleeping sickness not to mention the mosquito born malaria and dengue and yellow fevers. Even such hard to avoid insects such as ticks that can carry lime disease.

To finish off the potential vectors of interest to GMs are airborne infections and of course food poisoning. Spoiled food is a major hazard and may transmit mild to severe effects. This usually depends on the type of food, where it came from, and how it was prepared. Also, food contaminated through contact with other vectors such as insects or contaminated water becomes a medium for disease. Another way food can shelter the enemy is by eating infected animals, which may be still within the incubation period.

Airborne vectors come about when inhaling germs in miasmatic environs such as gas spewing swamps or burbling cesspits. This includes sharing space with infected individuals with no contact other than breathing the same air. Here, the disease uses the medium of air launched in aerosol form by a cough or sneeze. Good examples of the types of diseases that can spread via these vectors are influenza and the Hanta virus via the dust from rodent droppings. In certain cases, even the wind can become a vector. Another medium that is worth visiting is that of water.

Waterborne infections can afflict individuals that drink spoiled or stagnant water. Contaminated water can also infect food that comes into contact with it especially during preparation. Examples of the diseases that travel via water are Dysentery, Typhoid fever, and Guinea Worm. Adventurers should always be suspicious of bodies of water they encounter and not just because of leeches and piranha either. However, in fantasy roleplaying games there are a few mitigating factors even in the more primitive of settings.

In RPGs, certain game aspects can mitigate the disease factor. These three disease negating factors are characters that have the ability to heal others aka Healers, potions or elixirs, and magic.

Healers are characters that have the ability to heal other characters of both damage and cure diseases or at least ease their symptoms. They can achieve this mystically or with some version of medicine. If disease is a major feature in a setting, these characters become very valuable party members. However, even when Healers are traveling with an expedition that party may want some backup in the form of potions.

Potions when consumed heal damage and some can even cure disease. These are usually of a magical nature but sometimes the fantasy separates chemistry, alchemy, and magic into separate areas. This separation does not concern us here, as the mere existence of potions is effective in combating disease. The only factors to consider are availability (who makes them and how long does it take) and cost in both time and money. Meaning the majority of people will not be able to afford these life-saving potions. Alternately, if they can it still might be a rare thing. This is especially true if the disease requires a specific cure or type of potion. As the nature of potions often falls into the realm of magic so magic itself must be taken into consideration.

Although healing abilities and potions fall under the purview of magic, they are different strategies due to availability and cost. Unless someone has access to a healer they do not have the luxury of the healer’s abilities and if they cannot find a supply of potions then the same. The same can be said of magic items that may offer protection or even healing abilities to their wielder. These are more accessible to the makers of such items and fall into adventurers’ possession more frequently than others’.

Magic items are more accessible than a Healer’s abilities. This is simply because all one has to do is wield the item instead of becoming a healer. They are also more durable than potion bottles thus granting a more portability. Also they are more than likely good for more than a single use. Frankly, the advantage of a disease fighting magical item is so great that it becomes a necessary piece of kit. This is not to diminish a mage or wizard that has disease curing spells but again access is the issue, there must be such a spell-caster present.

In a world of limited scientific knowledge and where magic is known to exist  how would disease be treated? Just as importantly, how is the welfare of those unfortunate enough to be suffering from infection handled? Historically, disease shaped communities and whole eras of civilization (syphilis, HIV/AIDS, Black Death, leprosy). This includes the formation of colonies and places meant to isolate and imprison diseased individuals. A bustling snake oil industry and quack businesses will spring up. A historical parallel would be the patent medicines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disease shapes affected communities especially if there is no cure. How society deals with and treats the so affected is important. The example of lepers is especially notorious. Lepers were made to ring bells warning the healthy members of society that they were coming whenever they were traveling in towns and cities if not barred from entry. Lepers were even forced (occasionally voluntarily) into colonies often on small faraway islands or isolated facilities.

With laws and forced isolation imposed on victims of disease also comes scapegoating. This being applied to not only the infected but also those that were believed to carry the infection. This includes those accused of deliberately planting the sickness by contaminating water wells or poisoning food by means of witchcraft.  These scapegoats may be particular creatures or locations, enemies, social minorities, or newly arrived adventurers or adventurers in general. This also may include a belief that a specific disease is particular to a certain community.

The efforts to prevent infection will range from reliance on certain organizations (religious, mages, alchemy, charlatans, etc.) to enforced cleanliness or misguided efforts thereof. Cities and towns could forbid certain types of individuals from entering due to the belief that they are carriers.

Disease is a world shaping force that stops invasions dead, halts the movement of goods, money, and troops, altering history. The outbreak of plagues can sweep over the entire planet wiping out whole swaths of civilization leaving an indelible mark on the surviving culture. There are Plagues (an extreme version of a specific disease) that can alter the world as it circulates the globe wiping out towns and cities.  International trade can even become a vector such as in the case of the Black Plague and medieval Europe. Small outbreaks can stall wars, halt invasions, wipe out small communities, and kill kings.

However, disease, especially plagues, can not only negatively affect the population but also have severe economic repercussions and even present new opportunities. Patent Medicines (real or snake oil) can come about to fill the need effective or not. Quacks may proliferate. The collapse of trade may occur with the isolation of cities or rural areas needed for trade. The reduction of the work force by extreme measure is not only a tragedy but also thereby giving them more power to demand better treatment and pay.

In June 1381, 35 years after the Black Death had swept England, the Peasant Rebellion occurred led by Wat Tyler from Kent. The peasant army from Kent and Essex marched on London and captured the Tower of London. One motivating factor of this peasant force was that during the plague was they had been granted their freedom and granted paid to work the estates of the aristocracy. The aristocracy did this in order to keep them from leaving during the labor shortage created by the plague. The peasants were afraid that they would lose these newly won privileges. Plagues damage the laborer population, which leads to a downturn in production of materials and crops for at least a decade and increases the economic and political clout of labor and the lower classes. It actually turns the world upside down.

Diseases in RPGs are of value to the GM. Diseases can act as an obstacle to PCs, give certain specialized Healer characters an important role to play, and alter NPCs in dramatic ways. The knowledge of the potential diseases they may face may give the PCs pause and even alter their travel routes. A diseased member of a PC expedition may slow down or stop the group dead especially if more than one of their number is infected. This in and of itself presents its own challenge. That challenge being to find shelter and/or a place to recuperate and recover their bearings.

Introducing these illnesses into your world allows the Healer character to do something seemingly small. However, do not be afraid to demonstrate to the other PCs that disease can take quite a toll even if it only is stalling them for a while. Sickness can also alter infected NPCs in a way that can engage players and give the GM more tools to work with. Examples are lepers, sick and dying kids as a source of empathy/sympathy or an adventure hook, dying beggars, the dying and kind old person but for a cure scenario.

Making use of diseases can help a GM to enhance their game. They have a tool that can halt armies, delay or kill adventurers, alter the functions of an NPC, and put up a barrier to egress in a remote area. It can add to the flavor of a game as well as engendering some mild danger or at least another sum that the Players will have to calculate. Not to mention the fear factor built up via dialogue delivered by the NPCs to the Players.

Microorganisms can stall adventuring parties and armies alike as well as strike down the lowliest peasant as well as the mightiest king. Adding disease to your campaign world can enrich the background as well as alter the roles of NPCs, Healers, and mages. In this same scenario potions and magic items that house healing and disease fighting abilities become more useful and therefore valuable. Certain vectors especially certain insects may become a symbol of terror to PCs who become cognizant of the risk and the need to prepare for an excursion beforehand. Disease as a part of a living campaign world is an invaluable tool for the discerning GM and a valuable source of drama and immersion for Players.

 

Posts Will Resume Weekly Basis

Apologies, there is no regular post again this week.

Regular Weekly Posts

The regular weekly posts will return next week as my current projects are nearing completion. They should be done sometime next week. The Black Teeth adventure module should be finished sometime at the end of this month and ready to be published after that. The weekly posts will alternate between a new campaign blog and more resource PDFs. The campaign finished a few weeks ago where I played a ratling in the Poisonwood city of Tanglethorn. It will be a Playing D&G blog.

New Banner on Catalog Page

We have added a banner space in the Catalog meant to advertise any special deals, discounts, and sales. The banner will try to link to the site but may only display a coupon or discount code.

Until Next week

Hopefully I didn’t lose too many readers on this brief post hiatus. No doubt there will be at least one more this year while I try to get the newest Ranger Games projects either rolling or out to publish. Until next week everybody!

-Sincerely,

Robert A. Neri Jr.

Tabletop Meditations #17: The Lich

Whether it is at the head of an undead horde or a shadowy figure behind the scenes using monsters and people like chess pieces the undead wizard known as the lich is adept on and off the field. These undead wizards appear as mostly skeletal with only the scant, mummified remnants of flesh left hanging from their yellowed bones, and in the deep black pits of their perpetually grinning skulls, red pinpoints of hellish light. The lich is a very common archetype in modern fantasy and one of the most recognizable but how far do the roots of the monster actually go?

The lich is an undead spell-caster that has for the most part deliberately become undead as a bid for immortality able to gather more arcane-knowledge and thus power over time. When they first appeared seemingly out of whole cloth they were undead spell-casters with strange powers, became ideal and grim antagonists, and continue today as antagonists of boss-monster proportions.

“[A] mage or cleric so thirsty for immortality as to try to cheat death, and already powerful at magic.” [Greenwood, Ed. 1988. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, The Lords of Darkness. TSR, Inc. 2]

A lich is an undead creature therefore; our concerns lie first with the condition of undeath and the meaning of ‘undead creature’. First off, undead creatures were formerly living and thus have had a “first death” rising from the grave weirder and more powerful.

Undead creatures are dead bodies animated often by an outside force after the soul of the dead being has since flown from the bones. This force, often malicious, oft defined as demonic and occasionally elemental replaces the soul as the animating force and/or mind. This force typically alters the corpse in significant and grotesque ways to adapt the newly formed creature to its new (un)life as a creature of the night. In the case of Liches, this force is magic rather than a demonic spirit though perhaps still elemental.  However, their actual soul has been captured in a special object called a Phylactery. The transformation of the body to the being of a lich is the death of the mage and the rotting of the corpse leaving only that necessary to contain the animating force. The once living visage reduced to the bones with maybe some withered, leather-tough tatters of flesh to hold the joints together.

“The urge for immortality is so strong in some powerful mages and magic-user/clerics that they aspire to lichdom, despite its horrible physical side effects and the usual loss of friends and living companionship. Lichdom must be prepared for in life; no true lich ever is known to have come about “naturally”.” [Greenwood. pg.73]

The term and the creature fused together in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. For the most part the term was used as an archaism. An archaism is a deliberate imitation of old-fashioned language in order to stress a certain time-frame or to enhance atmosphere. Similar archaisms were revived and sometimes redefined by the popular imagination in that fertile ground known as American Pulp Fiction, namely in the fantasy and horror genres of weird fiction. Masters and innovators of modern archaisms as literary device included such well-known names as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The etymology of the term Lich, plural Liches, is straightforward. Its roots lie in the Old English word for ‘corpse’, not a monster or evil spirit, just a dead body:  “A corpse (Old English lic).” [Rockwood, Camilla ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 781] Though archaic its original use lingers in certain usages such as ‘lich gate’ and a few others.

Lich gate or lych gate The covered entrance to churchyards intended to afford shelter to the coffin and mourners while awaiting the clergyman who is to conduct the cortége into church.”

Lich wake or lyke wake The funeral feast or the waking of a corpse, i.e. watching it all night.”

Lychway or lickway A trackway, especially in a remote upland area, along which corpses were borne for burial in a distant churchyard.” [Rockwood. 781]

The modern fantasy trope of the Lich may have indeed started with the term itself.

Pulp Fiction where most modern fantasy archetypes were, if not born, then mantled with their modern guises, the lich is no exception. However, in regards to the lich this lineage begins with the appearance of the term “lich” in weird stories beginning in the 19th century with Ambrose Bierce at the very beginning of the weird genre of fiction.

One of the earliest appearances in fiction of the word occurs in Ambrose Bierce’s story the Death of Halpin Frayser. In fact, the fictional quote that precedes the story is the earliest part to mention our undead subject. “For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether.” [Hopkins, Ernest Jerome ed. 1970. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. University of Nebraska Press. The Death of Halpin Frayser]

Soon after the term was adopted by one of the three musketeers of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith.  His connection to Bierce being that: “At fifteen, [Clark Ashton Smith] became likewise infatuated with [the poetry] of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1891 and had become a protégé of Ambrose Bierce – “bitter Bierce,” the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist[.]” [De Camp, L.Sprague. 1976. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House . Sauk City, Wisconsin. 199]

Bierce himself was quite aware of the young writer. “In 1912, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him.” [De Camp. 201]

Eventually through his use of the word and his close connections via written correspondence, his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, began to use the word as well. However, Smith used the term more often to describe an animated corpse than an undead wizard. This is around 1926 and the lich is still a little strange.

“But on its heels, ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides, and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight – the monstrous mummy of some ancient king, still crowned with untarnished gold, but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and balas-rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy’s ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat…” [Connors, Scott ed. 2006. The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume One. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Abominations of Yondo. 7-8]

In his 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the lich has lost the weird belly-monster and taken the basic form of an animated corpse. “After a while, in the grey waste, they found the remnants of another horse and rider, which the jackals had spared and the sun had dried to the leanness of old mummies. They also raised up from death; and Mmatmuor bestrode the withered charger; and the two magicians rode on in state, like errant emperors, with a lich and a skeleton to attend them.” [Connors, Scott ed. 2007. A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume Three. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Empire of the Necromancers . 194] And “All that night , and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom and along the palace-hall where Hestaiyon stood guard above the slain necromancers.” [Connors. A Vintage from Atlantis. 199]

Eventually Robert E. Howard resourced the lich for his mystical two-fisted adventure tale Skull-Face in 1929.

“I shuddered. Kathulos laughed wildly again. His fingers began to drum his chair arms and his face gleamed with the unnatural light once more. The red visions had begun to seethe in his skull again.

“Under the green seas they lie, the ancient masters, in their lacquered cases, dead as men reckon death, but only sleeping. Sleeping through the long ages as hours, awaiting the day of awakening! The old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready. Made ready that they might rise again in the barbaric days to come. As did I. Sleeping they lie, ancient kings and grim wizards, who died as men die, before Atlantis sank. Who, sleeping, sank with her but who shall arise again!” [Howard, Robert E. 1974. Skull-Face Omnibus. Neville Spearman, London.]

Of course, Lovecraft followed suit in his The Thing on the Doorstep originally published in 1937. “He must be crematedhe who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak – and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life – Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward – who now? I will not be driven out of my body … I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!” [Derleth, August ed. 1963. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Arkham House Publishers, Inc. Sauk City, Wisconsin. The Thing on the Doorstep. 300]

Though Lovecraft used the term lich to mean the body of the possessed he is probably trying to get the idea through to the reader that the original inhabiting personality is gone essentially slain by the thing that now occupies the flesh. Although within the story, it does concern a sorceress who cheats death by taking possession of others’ bodies even able to drive her former corpse around very similar to the current incarnation of the lich.

These three tales forever merged in the minds of pulp readers the image of the skeletal corpse with the idea of a powerful undying sorcerer. From there the word seeped into the lexicon of fantasy writers but the archetype was not yet quite complete.

The basic idea of the lich naturally filtered to the latter day pulp writers, in particular one Gardner Fox and his Conan-Kull pastiche Kothar. In his 1969 novel Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman a lich appears that will serve as the basis for all future undead wizards in the popular mind.

“He turned and stared back into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. […] It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.

“Who are you?” Kothar growled.

“My name is Afgorkon, long and long ago.”

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eyeholes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.

[…]

The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.

Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.” [Fox, Gardner, F. 2016. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack. Wildside Press LLC. Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman]

Fox was definitely inspired by Howard’s Conan the Barbarian as Kothar the Barbarian is near identical though apparently less intelligent and with the sexual content of the stories turned up. On a related note The Cat and the Skull, a story written for Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard around 1928 saw print in 1967 in the King Kull lancer paperback.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

“Thulsa Doom!”

[…]

“Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!” the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly.

“The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis. […]”

[…]Brule charged with the silent ferocity of a tiger, his curved sword gleaming. And like a gleam of light it flashed into the ribs of Thulsa Doom, piercing him through and through so that the point stood out between his shoulders.

Brule regained his blade[.] Not a drop of blood oozed from the wound which in a living man had been mortal. The skull-faced one laughed.

“Ages ago I died as men die!” he taunted. “Nay, I shall pass to some other sphere when my time comes, not before. I bleed not for my veins are empty and I feel only a slight coldness which shall pass when the wound closes, as it is even now closing. Stand back, fool, your master goes but he shall come again to you and you shall scream and shrivel and die in that coming! Kull, I salute you!”” [Louinet, Patrice ed. 2006. Kull Exile of Atlantis. Ballantine Books, New York. The Cat and the Skull]

Most importantly however, Gardner’s novel was read by Gary Gygax whom used the lich in that story as his template for the monster in his game Dungeons & Dragons.

“While a few of the critters in questions are purely products of my own imagination–carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, roper for instance–there were many sources of inspiration for the majority of the monsters, and I will name a few: […] Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.” [Gygax, Gary. 2007. EnWorld.Org. Forum Post]

We have finally arrived at the Archetypical Lich. The Undead Magic-User or Priest that willingly underwent the lethal mystical transformation into an undead monster has taken its modern form. “Preparation for lichdom occurs while the figure is still alive and must be completed before his first “death”.” [Mohan, Kim ed. 1981. Lenard Lakofka auth. 1979. Best of Dragon Vol.II. Blueprint for a lIch.] After they have successfully undergone this process, the wizard’s soul has been captured within the Phylactery singly the most valuable item in any lich’s amassed treasury no matter how vast.

The word Phylactery is defined in the dictionary as an amulet but also refers to devices of orthodox Jewish prayer. In that respect, phylactery refers to two small leather boxes containing slips of vellum on which are written portions of Mosaic Law. One is worn on the head and the other on the left arm in token of the duty to obey religious law. Strangely, the lich’s phylactery reflects these ideas, as it is a magic amulet containing its living soul, which the lich must protect. If it is destroyed, so is the lich. “The phylactery may take any form – it may be a pendant, gauntlet, scepter, helm, crown, ring, or even a lump of stone. It must be of inorganic material, must be solid and of high-quality workmanship if man-made, and cannot be an item having other spells or magical properties on or in it. It may be decorated or carved in any way desired for distinction.” [Greenwood. pg.74]

The idea of it being a mystical container for the soul of a sorcerer is similar to the character of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. The basic idea found in mythology of a powerful wizard, evil king, troll, or other monster being able to hide its heart or soul somewhere else preventing them from being slain is an old one.

Unlike most undead Liches retain all of their knowledge from life and have an eternity to become masters at anything they choose.  Therefore, the archetypical lich is uber-powerful or in the very least has extremely refined skills often of the arcane variety, the perfect villain to set against a group of rowdy adventure seekers.

With the lich as a villain, there are a couple of things to ask about the fundamentals of their character stemming from a few problems posed by their immortality and especially the type of immortality that they have achieved. The Lich is an undead creature, an animate corpse with magic power, created by imprisoning its soul in a phylactery.  In some circles, the soul is believed to be the seat of intelligence (and indeed, in certain game systems it may very well be). Does this mean that in actuality, the wizard has imprisoned himself in a psychic prison (the Phylactery) and the creature that is the corpse is just a mockery with a black (or grey) soul of pure magical force?

As they are sentient, do they suffer the emotional consequences of being left behind by their world and the familiar? Is that why they occupy themselves sometimes for decades or even centuries perusing their labyrinthine libraries burying their ruined faces in rotting tomes as their world disintegrates around them? Would this render them insane, depressed, delusionally out-of-touch, or erratic in their behavior? Do they desire some connection any connection to other beings even if it is negative, perhaps violence is the only way they can relate to others. I suppose that individual Game-Masters and their Lich characters should answer these questions on a case-by-case basis those questions best left for them.

In summary, the modern archetypical lich as an undead magic-user that has trapped their own soul within a phylactery was born of an archaism utilized by pulp authors in their weird tales. They were then borrowed and honed into their final wretched form by Gary Gygax and continue to appear in very similar if not identical forms across media such as the lich in Adventure Time, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and in a slightly altered version in the guise of the Night King in Game of Thrones.

“I know what the dead know.” – Afgorkon [Fox. 22]

As an afterword, I am aware that Frank Belknap Long also used the term lich in his 1924 Weird Tales pulp story The Desert Lich. However, it has very little substance of the Lich in anything else besides its title. “The Desert Lich has an Arabic setting, but is a non-supernatural conte cruel in which a man who had sold an unfaithful wife is forced to lie in a sarcophagus with her corpse.” [Joshi, S.T. 2004. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. Hippocampus Press. New York, New York. 99]